Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. K.C. Constantine (a pseudonym for author Karl Constantine Kosak) is one of crime fiction’s most private authors. Very little is known about him and that’s how he prefers it. I respect that. It’s a refreshing alternative to blatant self-promotion. His Mario Balzic series features real (mostly working-class) people in the Western Pennsylvania mining town of Rocksburg. Although this series isn’t as well-known as some others, it’s contributed an everyday perspective on “people like the rest of us” to the genre. And besides, I’m quite homesick right now and wanted to take a look at a book that takes place in my home state of Pennsylvania (I went to university about an hour from fictional Rocksburg). And it’s my blog ;-). So today, let’s take a closer look at the first of the Balzic series, The Blank Page.
The novel begins when Rocksburg Chief of Police Mario Balzic gets a telephone call from Cynthia Sumner, who owns a rooming house for students who attend Conemaugh County Community College. She’s concerned because she hasn’t seen Janet Pisula, one of the residents, for a few days, and thinks something might be wrong. Balzic agrees to check into the matter and finds out that his caller’s instincts were right. The strangled, mostly-nude body of Janet Pisula is found on the floor of her bedroom in the rooming house. On her stomach is a blank sheet of paper.
Almost immediately, Balzic and his team run into difficulties as they try to investigate the murder. Very few people knew Janet Pisula, and no-one can think of a reason she would have been killed. She was an orphan without a lot of money, so there’s no immediately-obvious family or financial motive. Although she had no friends, she also was quiet, modest and pleasant – not the sort of young woman to stir up jealousy, anger or one of the other stereotypical motives for murder. Balzic begins to ask around among the victim’s acquaintances and teachers and slowly a picture of Janet Pisula begins to emerge. She didn’t get high grades and had a great deal of difficulty even speaking up in class. And yet, according to one of her English teachers, she had a bright and original mind. Her other English teacher Malcolm Keenan, though, thought otherwise.
When Balzic and his team interview Janet’s uncle Michael Pisula, they finally begin to get some answers. Janet’s been deeply affected by a terrible car accident that killed her parents. Specifically, she’s been traumatized by the behaviour of the other driver in the accident. That trauma plays an important role in the way she interacts and what she thinks, and it’s key in a fatal decision that she makes. When Balzic finally gets to the truth about Janet Pisula’s death, he and his team find that she was killed because of the way that trauma has affected her life.
This novel is a police procedural. So we follow along as Bazic and his team interview witnesses, make use of forensic and other reports and collect evidence about the murder. We learn about the victim as Balzic does, and the solution to the murder comes from careful police work as well as some good deductions.
The Blank Page is also in many ways a psychological novel. Balzic himself is no psychologist. He’s a “regular guy” who likes his favourite bar Muscotti’s and likes his beer. But he does respect the fact that there may be some psychological reason for Janet Pisula’s withdrawn behaviour – and for her murder. So he’s open to what he learns from Janet’s Uncle Michael and her best friend Frances Milocky. Between the two, they tell Balzic a great deal about Janet’s past and how it’s affected her life. And what they both tell Balzic turns out to have a great deal with her murder, too.
The novel is set in the small mining town of Rocksburg, and Constantine places the reader there. Here’s a snapshot of what Rocksburg is like:
“Lightning flashed vaguely on the horizon as Balzic got into his cruiser…He turned the cruiser around in the lot and then headed north on Main…At the last intersection on Main Street serviced by traffic lights, Balzic turned onto North Hagen Avenue…”
There are all sorts of “Rocksburgs” in Western Pennsylvania. Trust me. And Constantine has done an effective job of evoking that atmosphere. Balzic has lived in Rocksburg for a long time, and he knows just about everyone. Muscotti’s is the most popular hangout for the locals and Balzic spends his share of time there. In this novel and in the rest of the Rocksburg series, we meet and get to know many of the town’s residents. And yet, despite the small-town setting and some of the eccentric characters in the story, this isn’t really a cosy novel. It’s got a bit more of an edge to it than most cosies have.
Another element in this novel is a dry, slightly dark and cynical sense of humour. For instance, Balzic is uncomfortable working with the Pennsylvania State Police, especially Lt. Harry Minyon. When Balzic puts the machinery of the law into motion after he discovers Janet Pisula’s body, though, he gets what for him is a pleasant surprise:
“The state police Criminal Investigation Division squad, under the temporary command of Lt. Walker Johnson, arrived first. Much to Balzic’s spiteful pleasure Johnson had been transferred from Erie to replace Lt. Harry Minyon while Minyon rode out a bout with his ulcers in Conemaugh General Hospital. Any replacement for Minyon would have pleased Balzic, but Johnson was especially welcome to him as their friendship went back to days when Balzic had first made chief and Johnson was a sergeant on the narcotics squad.”
And then there’s the character of Mario Balzic himself. Half Polish/half Italian, Balzic is a working-class Western Pennsylvanian who is painfully aware of how the justice system isn’t always what you’d call just. He feels a strong sense of compassion for the everyday people he lives and works with – the “regular guys.” Here’s a bit of what Balzic says about the criminal justice system:
“I can see me running a gas station or a grocery and some junkie comes in, cleans out my register, and then blows it all on three fixes before he gets grabbed. Then I go give my testimony against him and watch him get one to three and five years pro. I keep on paying taxes to support the whole goddamn system, meantime I don’t get my money back, the money the junkie copped in the first place. There’s no provision for it….You’d be surprised how little the squares want to hear how the criminal justice system works. What they really want to know is what a good job I’m doing keeping the dopers…out of their neighborhood.”
Although Balzic doesn’t have a lot of formal education, he’s thoughtful and reflective. He’s happily married and a proud father of grown children. He’s also a dutiful son. Although the novel isn’t long, Constantine weaves an interesting picture of an interesting cop.
The Blank Page weaves together a solid police story with a psychological undertone. The characters, especially that of Balzic himself, are interesting and well suited for the Western Pennsylvania backdrop. Constantine has been quoted as saying
“I hope nobody reads The Blank Page because I screwed up large in that one.”
and he’s of course entitled to that view. To me, though (and this is just my opinion, so no need to agree with me if you don’t) it’s a compelling read and a solid introduction to the series. But what’s your view? Have you read The Blank Page? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 25 April/Tuesday 26 April – The Anodyne Necklace – Martha Grimes
Monday 2 May/Tuesday 3 May – Smoke and Mirrors – Kel Robertson
Monday 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Baltimore Blues – Laura Lippman